I could write the normal trending report, but you probably don't care at this point. All the trends are down this week. So instead, we'll cover the same territory in a bit of a different format.
I play far too much of an online text-based college basketball called Hoops Dynasty (if anyone else has a team, I'm tarvolon, say hey). It's a management game and not an actual video game. You recruit players, set practice plans and strategies, and then the HD simulation engine simulates the games based on your decisions. Your opponents are (mostly) other humans who are doing the same. I have nine teams and have gotten pretty good at turning a doormat into a top ten team in three seasons. I take the same strategy every time. First, I cut every sophomore or junior on the roster who won't at least be solid bench contributors on a good team (I don't worry about the seniors--they'll be gone soon anyways). Even if they're projected starters in my first year, if they're not up to snuff, they're gone. I recruit nothing but four-year players based solely on their growth potential, redshirt the one with the farthest to go, and start the rest of them as freshmen so they grow more quickly. If I plan on changing the offense or defense, I do it immediately. I don't care if the seniors can run it as long as the freshmen learn it. Of course, I still try my best to win games. But my best is limited by roster decisions made with year three in mind. The first year is usually terrible. I've definitely taken NIT-caliber teams and turned them into 2-25 disasters. But when my recruits are juniors, there we are in the Elite Eight.
I give this long and probably uninteresting preamble so that you know what I mean when I say that Butch Jones seems to be coaching like he's playing a video game. Of course, there are differences. You can be much more extreme in a game. But in real life, starting all freshmen seems just as liable to wreck their development as it is accelerate their growth. In real life, you can get fired in one year if you're bad enough (hi, Ellis Johnson). And while my pixel recruits barely care about the difference between the NIT and a 12-15 record and can't even tell you the difference between 12-25 and 2-25, you can be sure that real life football recruits are going to look differently at a 5-7 team than a 2-10 one.
But Jones has, with one game remaining, managed to keep redshirts intact for Marcus Jackson, Curt Maggitt, and Riley Ferguson. Maggitt was a starter each of the last two years and almost certainly could've helped the team down the stretch, perhaps even providing a key stop during Vanderbilt's game-winning touchdown drive Saturday. But Jones traded a few weeks of Maggitt coming off injury on a bad 2013 team for what he hopes will be a whole healthy season in 2015 on a team competing for championships. Same with Jackson, except trading "coming off injury" and "healthy" for "as a sixth man" and "starter."
It may be less obvious how Ferguson would've helped, but it seemed quite clear from the game plan Saturday that offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian had no confidence in Josh Dobbs throwing the football. Vanderbilt could put eleven guys in the box and the Vols would still plunge up the middle (without much success). Does the staff have more confidence in Ferguson than Dobbs or Nathan Peterman? It's hard to say from the outside, but there's at least the possibility that he could've been the catalyst that took the Vols from an ugly loss to a bowl were he not being redshirted.
And it's not just the redshirts. Early in the season, the Vols spent a lot of time trying without much success to establish a passing game when there were no good quarterback options and no experienced receivers when a power run game would've much better fit the talent (even if the running game ended up performing below expectations, it was still clearly the strength of the team).
Looking at Jones' history, it may not even be new to his time at Tennessee. In his first year at Central Michigan, despite a conference title, Jones lost by more than 20 points four times--including a 44-14 shellacking at the hands of an FCS school--and lost to 4-8 Eastern Michigan to boot (he also lost to EMU in year two before going 12-2 in year three). At Cincinnati, he went 4-8 in year one before winning ten games in each of his next two seasons. On the defensive side of the ball, the 2010 Bearcats ranked 76th in points allowed. They were 23rd in 2011 and 12th in 2012.
Of course, improvement from year one to year three should be expected from any good coaching staff, and bad year one numbers can be explained by walking into a bad situation. But, while I haven't watched enough Big East football to say for sure, the video game theory seems to better explain the results so far. The year before Jones' 4-8 season, the Bearcats finished the regular season undefeated and went to the Sugar Bowl. Yes, they lost a lot from that team, and there have been folks who have blamed Brian Kelly's recruiting, but was the situation bad enough for 4-8?
And this brings us back to Tennessee and the trending report. Trending down was the offensive play-calling. The first quarter was filled with ineffective screen pass after ineffective screen pass, and while the Vols offense did improve somewhat as the game went on, Bajakian was still unable to find an answer for a defense that was extremely shorthanded in the secondary and was stacking the box to stop the run. Also trending down was a defense that, despite only allowing 14 points, seemed content to allow five yards a pop all night. They didn't allow the big play (which was one of the few positives), and Vanderbilt was gracious enough to provide four turnovers and kill two more drives with penalties, but they never did figure out how to defend the bubble screen, and they allowed both Patton Robinette and Wesley Tate more than four yards per carry. And when Vanderbilt got the ball inside their own ten needing a long scoring drive, the Tennessee defense did exactly what they did when Georgia got the ball needing a long scoring drive--they gave up a long touchdown drive to finish the game.
Talent has been an issue all season and continued to be an issue this week, which makes it hard to tell how much is on the coaches and how much is on the players. But the defensive coordinator is 0/2 in stopping opponents who start deep inside their own territory needing a score to tie, and the offensive coordinator has been unable to do much of anything for large chunks of the season--those blessed two quarters against Georgia aside--and looked even worse this week. These, in addition to lack of confidence in the quarterback, are the major downward trends from the Vanderbilt game. And they pose a question to Vols fans: are the coaches unable to install a scheme to fit the talent, or are they spending a year ignoring fit so that Tennessee will benefit down the road?
It's a question that's difficult to answer with the current level of information and one we'll likely agonize over during the long offseason. If Jones is trading the short-term for the long-term, it's a bold move that seriously dampens the spirits this winter but may pay off in the long run. And make no mistake, if it does pay off in the long run, it's worth it. The difference between an SEC championship and a solid but unspectacular season is much more important than the difference between a bottom-tier bowl and a December at home. But if he isn't, we may be back here at this time next year talking about whether he can be objective about his assistants.